I have always identified myself as an “outdoorsy” person. As a kid in Wisconsin, I loved to play outside and remember going on adventures up creeks and through deep woods near my house. But that title; “outdoorsy,” is fully due to my parents, both of whom started backpacking, biking, skiing and running during their college years and never turned back. It would have been so easy for them to stop all of that when my siblings and me were born, but they didn’t. They took us youngsters to go traipsing all over the great Midwest, usually with at least one kid in a backpack, one kid falling desperately behind and another crying to go back to the car. I think our first actual overnight camping trip was when we drove down to Florida and stayed at a campsite with family friends. I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that my younger sister ended up with diarrhea and I ended up peeing in my sleeping bag.
There were so many reasons to hang up the tent and boots, but they stuck with it, and taking weeklong backpacking trips became the usual form of family vacation in our household. I can say with certainty that I love the outdoors because of just how comfortable my parents allowed me to become in it.
Which leads me to right here, right now, as I find myself 1.5 years in to a self-chosen, two-year stint in the middle of the wilderness. It seems almost painfully obvious to talk about the awe of nature at Holden Village. We are literally nestled into a valley of the Cascade Mountain Range, with a mighty creek running through our front yard.
But, admittedly, I often find myself NOT in awe of nature. I truly hate to say that, but the fact of the matter is that while my parents gave me a love for the outdoors, they also passed on to me a very anxious mind, one that is constantly churning and bubbling and thinking Every. Little. Thing. To death. At times it works in my favor, but more often than not I find myself trudging down main street, head down, brow furrowed, not even sparing a passing glance at the mountains.
But the good news is that since being here, I can say that I have improved. I have been able to occasionally quiet my rambling mind and put to rest the trivial issues that used to dominate my thoughts.
But, like most things in life, it didn’t happen how I planned. I thought to myself, “oh, I just have to get outside. I just have to go for a run to the trail junction, or ski the loop, or hike up copper basin. I’m outdoorsy, right, so I should just get back to nature and BOOM, I’ll be fine.”
But it was almost as if the anxieties would get worse as my heart rate increased. For instance, I would be running down the trail, mind churning away, and I would have to come to a complete stop - not because my legs burned too much or I couldn’t catch my breath, but because if I kept going, then I might just lose my mind.
But then there it was, in that silence. The silence that came when I allowed myself to just stop everything. When I would slow from a run, or a ski, or a snowshoe clomp down to complete stillness. My heartbeat would slow, I would raise my head, and finally I would look to see what was around me. I could see the orchid blooming along the trail, I could see the fungus stepping itself up a dead tree, the pine martin prints on the snowy trail, the mountains looming over me and greeting me like old friends.
And finally there was no room in my brain for run away thoughts. It was just too full of what I was quietly experiencing. The solution wasn’t to just get outside. The solution was to be present in nature, in a way that allows its innate stillness and being to fully enter you and fill you.
I think it’s fair to say that we all experience nature differently. Some prefer wild, adrenaline-filled outings, while others prefer to look out their window and enjoy a bird making its home in their front yard’s crabapple tree. But I want to believe that there is some universal truth to the idea that nature inspires a quiet awe in all of us, so long as we slow down enough to make some space.
There was a woman here who served as a teaching assistant before me, Rachael Button, who has a blog I check in on every once in a while. Recently, she wrote about a trip out to the seaside and I will end with an excerpt from that post. She writes:
“I know it’s a luxury to love something so fierce, to safely watch water strong enough to break a boat or sweep a body out to sea, but, still, I find myself seeking summits and seasides. I need the fierceness of unpaved places to bind the bigness of my worries to the confines of a body whose breath and blood sometimes fall in rhythm with water large enough to wash it out to sea.”